As a mum to 5 girls, I have been particularly interested in all the reports in the papers recently, about how much we are damaging girls psychologically by calling them, ‘pretty’. According to psychologists, this is undermining their self esteem, as they grow up feeling that they are ultimately defined by their looks. In one article I read, Linda Palmer, Chief Executive of Lady Geek, seemed to be getting particularly hysterical. In an article entitled: Don’t you dare tell my daughter she’s ‘pretty’, she says: ‘tell your own daughter, and your nieces and cousins and grandchildren…just how much they can achieve. Don’t define girls by their looks; show them what they can do.’ I thought about the last couple of times I had seen two of my nieces and remembered that on each occasion I had complimented them on what they were wearing. Shit, I thought after reading Linda’s article, does this mean I am part of what she calls: ‘the “sugar and spice” adage that ‘just won’t die – setting our girls up for failure’? But you see, I don’t think I am. Because if you strip away the fear of me complimenting their skirt and their sparkly cardigan (and for that compliment I got a twirl) you will see that there is so much more to what I say to them than this. This is just a small part of the way in which I talk to them. My complimenting their clothes is not defining who they are, it is simply complimenting them on their clothes. I also recently told one of my nephews that I liked his t shirt. People are also getting very hett up about the different ways girls and boys are spoken to. Examples are cited of how little girls are told by strangers that they are pretty, while their brothers are told that they are smart. Is this really true? I mean, I am constantly telling people that all their children are gorgeous. Crikey – there I go again. I must stop before I set any more children up for failure.
I am not dismissing the reports. I do think that as parents and relatives it is important that we don’t only talk to girls about their looks, but what I am questioning is, do we? Or is this is yet another example of reports that have been seized upon by journalists to terrify parents and undermine their confidence?
In another article I read, Sarah Newton, the author of: ‘Help! My Teenager is an Alien: The Everyday Situation Guide for Parents’, tells us that statements like: ‘you’re so pretty’ to our daughters, ‘can have a devastating effect on a girl in the long run’. Oh god, I think I may have told my 4 year old she looked like a beautiful princess a couple of times when she wore her Cinderella outfit. Hell, I may have told ALL of them at some point or other in all those years of dressing up and parties. Should I have even let them dress up in those damn Disney dresses? Don’t worry though, ‘a subtle shift in language can ensure your daughter grows up much more prepared for success and the adult world.’ Thank goodness for that, I can redeem myself by ‘commenting on what they are doing and asking what interests them. Instead of telling them they are good girls, we should be saying how patient they are or that they listen intently. Instead of commenting on how a girl should or shouldn’t behave, we should be telling them that we love the fact that they can express themselves and stick up for themselves.’
My point is, that we are telling our daughters all these things, aren’t we? I have never been a parent who constantly tells my girls how beautiful they are and reading all these recent articles I wondered whether it’s because my gut instinct as a parent is that sub consciously I don’t want to define them by their looks. However, I’m not sure parents should get too hung up about it. Yes, it is sad that a recent BBC survey had found that six out of ten eight to 12-year-olds thought they’d be happier thinner, and that research by Girl Guiding UK had found that girls under ten often link happiness with body image. However, the blame for this cannot simply lie with the parents. There is a much bigger picture here. There is a media fire that is burning so hot on body image that it is impossible for girls to grow up unaffected by it. The message to parents should certainly be not to add fuel to the fire, but equally the blame for the pressures their daughters may feel as they are growing up, should not be laid squarely at their feet.